Monday, January 28, 2008

The Road to Mysore

This weekend I went on a weekend road trip to Mysore, India, a city south of Bangalore known for its silks, sandalwood, and beautiful palaces. The most popular attraction in Mysore is the Mysore Palace, or the Maharajah's Palace, known for its beautiful architecture, intricately designed rooms, 12 Hindu temples, and beautiful surrounding gardens. However, the most original feature of Mysore Palace is its spectacular lights that are illuminated for only one hour each weekend (and during Indian holidays). These tens of thousands of lights adorn not only the palace, but the temples, three gates, and accompanying buildings that complete the palace grounds.

I was joined on this fun-filled weekend by four of my partners in crime, er... I mean, comrades from Target: Michael, Mike, Tom, and Praveen. Yes--3 Mikes and a Tom (of which two of us are named Michael Thomas)--so it presented an interesting mix. The other "Michael" is expat Michael; Mike and Tom are visiting from Target HQ in Minneapolis; and Praveen is from Target India. Actually, one of the main reasons we went to visit Mysore is because Praveen is from Mysore so he became our trusty tour guide. The five of us had a great time laughing and goofing around like guys do--it was good bonding time and reminded me how much I miss just being silly with friends. Hey--that's what they're for! During many moments over the weekend our behavior reminded me much more of Junior High than corporate business. Whew--that's a relief!

We stayed at a wonderful organic farm where we were treated to a fresh breakfast of masala dosas (similar to crepes wrapped around curried potatoes), mango juice, and fruit every morning. It reminded me so much of Hawaii :o) On Saturday afternoon we took the palace tour, ate fresh coconuts and walked around the city. We returned on Saturday evening to see the Palace lights. Stunning! The whole Palace grounds became a golden playground. Amazing. It reminded me of being in Disney World :o)

On Sunday we visited other palaces, shopped at the marketplace, ate lots of delicious food, and headed back up the 3-hour road trip to Bangalore. It was so nice to get a couple of days "away from the city" to unplug and relax. The peace and quiet was a nice change from the hustle and bustle of Bangalore. How fun it was to feel like I was back in Junior High on a Hawaiian vacation with Disneyworld as an evening treat. Apparently my weekend was much more of a trip that just to Mysore! I love it. Memories are so nice to :o)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Another Michael Moves In!

This past week a good friend of mine, another expat from Target and another Michael, moved into Zen Gardens. He arrived from Minneapolis a few weeks ago, cleared his employment Visa, passed customs on his shipment, and his landlord just finished furnishing the apartment. His move was something I've been looking forward to since we both knew that he would be coming to India this year.

Between Michael's arrival at Zen Gardens and the Indian holiday of Sankranthi, the day on which the sun begins its journey northwards, it appeared to be a great excuse, er... I mean reason, to have a little gathering. Michael pressed his favorite kurta (traditional India attire which resembles a robe-like shirt over thin pajama-like pants), and I got to try out my newest kurta shirt--a shorter cut version.

Michael invited one his friends/teammates, Pandu, and his wife, Prasanthi, for some traditional Indian food and a ritual blessing of the new apartment. I walked down the street to the local flowers stands and bought fresh jasmine, marigolds, tuberose, and fresh roses with a water bowl to float them in. This would bring more new life into the space as well as provide a light natural fragrance for the apartment.

Prasanthi made sweet pongal, a traditional Indian dish made with rice, fresh coconut, and various nuts and fruits. It tasted like warm rice pudding--mmmmm. We then all walked down to Ruchi, a local favorite restaurant, and had a wonderful dinner containing a variety of Indian curries, garlic chicken, rice, and vegetables. Indian food is delicious and reminds me of when I lived in Hawaii, but instead of chopsticks you can use your hands. It's very fascinating--a little odd at first, but once you get used to it, feels more natural than anything I've ever experienced. Remember when you loved to eat with your hands as a kid? Well, welcome back to childhood! It's actually quite freeing. One word, however: remember to wash your hands before and after dinner :o)
Happy Sankranthi!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Neighborhood Muse Walk

Recently I decided to walk around my neighborhood and take a closer look at the people, buildings, and colorful culture that surrounds me--well almost surrounds me. My apartment, which is in a gated and sheltered oasis from the realities of the neighborhood, has been built to ensure that its guests won't be surrounded too closely by the realities of Bangalore. So naturally I wanted to experience the dichotomy which exists a few steps away from my front door--something that I'm usually only allowed to observe from the backseat of my chauffeured car.

My apartment building is a complex appropriately named Zen Gardens to attract expatriates, foreign nationals, and other corporate citizens. There are several of us expats living here from Target, Goldman Sachs, IBM, and other multinational corporations. The complex is cleaned and maintained by a crew consisting of gardeners, housekeepers, security guards, and other staff. The main structures of the two buildings were completed just last spring and some of the apartments are still under construction, so our places are new and mostly owned and furnished by local investors. The grounds are quiet, patrolled, and calm.

The view across the street from Zen Gardens is profoundly different. The streets are filled with buses, trucks, cars, motor scooters and motorcycles (referred to as "two wheelers" in India), people of all ages, dogs, cows, goats, and anything else you can think of. Most fascinating are the piles of bricks, rocks and other rubble that line the streets and grace the front step of nearly half of the buildings and houses. Directly to the left of our front gate are several garbage piles where you will always see either a cow, dog, or goat munching on the latest treats. On this day there were a couple of dogs and a goat having an afternoon snack as a woman washed her laundry on the sidewalk (well, there really aren't any sidewalks either--they're just rock slabs lined next to each other... mostly).

I also caught the interest of the local kids who were excited to see a man with a camera taking pictures of animals and garbage, so they naturally started lining up for pictures with their smiles and laughter. Their favorite part is when I would show them their picture on my digital camera--they loved that!

I spent the afternoon just walking, listening, watching, (smelling), and experiencing my neighborhood. My muse walk was enlightening. The contrasts are so clear and powerful you can't help but be instantly moved into a state of introspection.

When I returned to the gates of Zen Gardens I was greeted by the usual 3-4 security guards, the iron gates were opened to me and I was once again welcomed into my protected sanctuary. I suddenly felt a rush of relief and gratitude, yet pangs of guilt and sadness. I felt grateful for the privilege to be experiencing life in India but also selfish for complaining about my water not being hot enough or my fan not keeping me cool. It's all a matter of perspective, but that's exactly what leaving your comfortable environment gives you. That's why I love to travel so much--it always teaches me to be grateful for what I have.

Today I am reminded to be grateful, and that is good.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

New Year U.K. Style

Imagine yourself in London's Trafalgar Square surrounded by 350,000 people at the final countdown to New Year's Eve 2008 and you will be me!

Often dubbed the "Times Square of Europe" on New Y
ear's Eve, Trafalgar Square is rich in history. To this day, its southern end, Charing Cross, is still considered the heart of London, from which all distances are measured.

Joining me on my trip to London was my buddy Ryan from my Target team in Minneapolis. Since Ryan had recently gotten his passport this was the prime opportunity to break it in! Being first-time visitors to the U.K. we had no problem finding plenty of things to see and do including touring the Tower of London (seeing the crown jewels and the torture chambers was amazing--talk about intense times); attending Westminster Abby's Evensong service; experiencing Big Ben; the London Eye; Buckingham Palace; climbing hundreds of stairs to the top spire of St. Paul's Cathedral (what a view!); riding the famous London underground ("Mind the Gap"); lunch at Harrod's; and taking in a show, Mary Poppins, at London's Prince Edward Theatre.

I found the architecture stunning, the history lessons fascinating, and the people very friendly. London has an energy that is magnetic--especially in Soho and Picadilly Circus. There was color everywhere! Another highlight was the opportunity to forgo bottled water for a few days and use tap water to brush my teeth! I deliberately drank a big glass of hotel water each day just because I could... reminding me that sometimes its the little things :o)

I decided to take another "peace" picture--this time in front of the Tower
Bridge. I told Ryan that I should think about starting a "peace around the world" series... another idea to ponder.

Wishing a happy, prosperous, abundant, and peaceful new year to all!